What is there to say that hasn’t been said about 1917? It’s a great film, a stunning technical achievement, and a powerfully immersive look into war itself.
The basics of the film
1917 is based on a true story, admittedly, not quite a one-to-one relationship of one story, but it is based around the actual experiences of Alfred Mendes, the grandfather of director Sam Mendes. The specific incident chronicled in the film is not an actual story (the particular Big Push in this film isn’t real), and the characters are fictionalised (Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch’s characters aren’t particularly based on actual army men, at least none notable enough for a Wikipedia page, and Alfred Mendes, at any rate, does not look at all like George McKay.) Mendes was a signalman who carried messages between the fronts, frequently running across No Man’s Land, and remarkably never getting injured, so scenes like this are actually accurate:
In his autobiography, he talked about how “In spite of the snipers, the machine-gunners and the shells, I arrived back at C Company’s shell hole without a scratch but with a series of hair-raising experiences that would keep my grand and great-grandchildren enthralled for nights on end.” And while I’m not a particular expert in World War I, (my big review of They Shall Not Grow Old aside), it’s clear that the filmmakers took a lot of care to recreate the world of the Great War, from the trenches to the ruins, to the massive wasteland that is No Man’s Land, places strewn with bodies in varying degrees of decay, and an army desensitised enough by it that they actually use particular bodies as landmarks when they have to travel. And on the army, it’s nice to see the extra detail of having the English Army look a bit less homogenised than usual, with a few black soldiers, and even an Indian who gets a few lines. Four years before the film took place, the British empire ruled over a little less than a quarter of the world’s population, they weren’t all ethnically homogenous, and no doubt at least a few of those less melanated people chose to fight for Blighty. And Alfred Mendes, Trinidadian soldier/author who inspired this whole movie, was one of them. Admittedly, it’s not perfect, but if Doctor Who’s putting a black soldier in Victoria’s army can cause controversy in “Empress of Mars,” baby steps may be a good option. But I want to get on to the big gimmick of the film…
One Shot is what it’s all about.
The shot is the basic building block of film, like sentences in a larger novel. Part of it’s for convenience because the longer a shot goes on, the more chance there is for something to get bollixed up and ruin it. But it has another function: manipulation. And I’ll let Alfred Hitchcock explain it:
In film editing, 1+1 does not equal two. It equals three. The first shot, the second shot, and what the two shots together tell us. The same exact shot can give two very different meanings depending on the context the next creates. But what happens when a director says “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to take this one scene and let it speak for itself”?
Well, this is not particularly common. If most directors try to make a scene with a long take, it might be once in a film. A few brave souls create a style around it (filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Michael Haneke, Yasujiro Ozu, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Gaspar Noe, and many others), and depressingly few of them are British. But when a long take works, it can be far more powerful than a more conventionally-edited film. Take this scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film, The Sacrifice.
In a more conventional film, we could alternate between shots of Alexander, his family, in various degrees of closeness, maybe with a few shots of the house behind him burning and disintegrating. Tarkovsky did not do that. Instead, he made a single scene as a single seven-minute shot, of Alexander’s family finding him outside, finally realising that he set his own house on fire, and it disintegrates IN REAL TIME. This is bloody real. And Tarkovsky was so devoted to filming it like this that, after the camera jammed during the original shot, he had to rebuild the home at great expense for the next two weeks, and then, eventually consented to using two cameras to film it for safety. And yet, the scene feels like it’s made by this long take. The impact would be severely blunted if it was done “normally.” Why? Because it enhances the realism. No Hollywood magic here (or the Swedish equivalent thereof). This is really happening. Quoth Andrei Tarkovsky:
Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it — so the film-maker, from a “lump of time” made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.
1+1=3. Just 1 is truth. And, for obvious reasons, very few films take this to its logical conclusion and do the entire bloody film in one take. And 1917 is one of them. Admittedly, in reality, it’s not exactly one take. Apart from the one scene where the sniper shoots Schofield into unconsciousness, there’s still a couple points where they disguised the cuts. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith did a bloody good job of disguising it, although you might be able to spot where each take ends if you’re looking closely at it.
And this really helps to enhance the realism. It’s telling us: this is exactly what one person is seeing. And it makes it all the more surprising in the opening to see the massive contrast between the pristine meadow he’s napping in during the first scene to the gritty trenches, to the horrific No Man’s Land. We can go from beauty to horror in the length of a conversation, and it’s easier to grasp this perspective without all these edits breaking it up. With the fragmentation of a normal movie, it might be easier to make, but it’s also easier to see the strings. Saving Private Ryan, it’s mere pageantry. Very well-made pageantry, but still pageantry.
1917? This is happening. This is one soldier’s experience, happening in real-time. And when his friend gets stabbed, we can see him develop a deathly pallor in real-time. If you remember my review of Ghostwatch, this is the duel between Zeuxis and Parrhasius all over again. And speaking of what’s actually happening?
No such thing as an anti-war film?
François Truffaut once said it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, largely because the medium, regardless of the narrative the filmmakers put on it, will inevitably make the war engaging, somehow validating war as a good thing. I could list a bunch of examples, but I’ll just leave this clip from Jarhead, for reasons totally not related to its being directed by the same guy who made 1917:
Coppola no doubt intended that scene in Apocalypse Now to be monstrous, an illustration of the absurdity of his quest to terminate Kurtz (with extreme prejudice) when scenes like this are commonplace. The soldiers? In this film, and in real life, they applauded this act. Because it was just so exciting.
However, I don’t think Truffaut’s totally right. I can think of a few films in my collection that can serve as good counter-examples. Das Boot, where the focus is on these submariners trying to survive a suicide mission, just barely surviving to go back home, only to get bombed by the allies just as they get there. Or Come and See, the story of a 12-year-old Belorussian boy caught up in the Resistance after his village is destroyed, giving the actual conflict short shrift, and dwelling on the horrific consequences, for a film you can never forget. Where’s the glory in these films?
And I strongly think 1917 does much the same thing. Besides the whole thrust of the film being to stop a particular Big Push, one that will result in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands, Mendes doesn’t really show much actual fighting in this war film. I’ve heard that most of a soldier’s life is long stretches of time just waiting around, waiting for something to happen, punctuated with moments of extreme, fight or flight, terror. While I didn’t put a stopwatch on, I’d speculate that the movie, before Schofield finally reaches the other trench, I’d say there was only about ten minutes’ worth of combat, probably less. And there isn’t much talk about how bad The Hun is. It’s not that the bad guys are bad and we need to kill them. It’s that they need to not bloody die. They can’t take pleasure in it all; they’re too busy being terrified. And the consequences? Blake isn’t a hero who died for his country. He’s a simple man who made a noble choice, paid dearly for it, and, in the end, he’s just going to be remembered as a face in an old black-and-white photograph. His death means nothing. The deaths thousands who actually died during the first minute or so of the Big Push in the climax mean nothing. And not only is there a distinct possibility that Blake or Schofield won’t survive to give the order, but there’s a strong suspicion that when Benedict Cumberbatch gets the order, he simply won’t care, because he’ll view the potential reward as far better than the risk of sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to die for nothing. And it almost happens that way. And for those who dodged the bullets (far too literally), there’s always a strong possibility that they’re just postponing the inevitable. A few days after the film is set, there was yet another Big Push that led to hundreds of thousands dying, with so much carnage that even Wikipedia can’t even decide who won, but there is a general agreement that it accomplished nothing, just like a lot of the Great War.
Where is the glory? There really isn’t any glory here. Even when Schofield kills some German soldiers, it’s only a good thing because he’s just trying to survive. It’s not a matter of trying to defeat the enemy.
And that’s what makes the film great. It gives us a level of truth about the war experience in ways that very few films can (or would want to.) If you can handle this, you must see it.